Flickr/ Franck Michel

This blog was written by Aaron Kohrs of the Braver Angels Washignton D.C. Alliance. He has a Center rating. 

Everyone knows we need to change—we need to depolarize our politics at a national scale. The entire political discourse of our nation needs to shift: to be less corrosive, more productive, and more reflective of our country’s many diverse, nuanced viewpoints. The question then is how do we depolarize our politics? Often, “dialogue” or “civil, constructive conversation” is cited as the answer.

However, as noted at a recent panel discussion with Braver Angels D.C. Alliance Co-Chair James Coan and Cheryl Graeve, National Community Organizer for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, we live in a country of over 300 million people where encouraging individual participation in personal dialogue is not an adequately scalable solution. Perhaps surprising from someone from a civil discourse organization, Graeve remarked, “Dialogue is essential but insufficient.” We need bigger, better ideas to scale up the massive mountain of political polarization.

Coan and Graeve, on a panel moderated by D.C. Braver Angels Co-Chair Luke Phillips, had a comprehensive conversation about policy ideas and social changes that could lead to a large-scale shift in our national discourse. For example, both Coan and Graeve cited institutional modifications that could result in less political polarization—like ranked-choice voting—as well as named structures that contribute to our current dysfunction, like social media revenue from “click-bait”.

While 1:1 conversations are certainly helpful in an individual’s daily interactions with those of a different perspective, there must be a way to apply the goal of depolarization to the millions of people who live in our democracy today. Mass messaging, “influencers” touching followers in their sphere, and changing the incentive structure for online advertising could all have more far-reaching effects than simply promoting civil discourse among individuals or small groups. Coan and Graeve discuss these proposed solutions and cite examples of instances where ideas to depolarize at scale, like proportional representation, have worked or could work if implemented. Coan noted the importance of the messages that we see and hear, framing a core question of depolarization as, “How do we change the balance to tamp down messages that divide us and bring up messages that bring us together?”

Coan argued for much greater use of messaging that he believed can bring Americans together. He summarized it with a mnemonic C-U-T, as in let’s cut to the chase about which messages and stories help: those that show we have more in common (C), we are not just stereotypes but all individually unique (U), and we can successfully live and work as friends and colleagues together (T). 

Discussing structural reform, Coan praised the country of Australia, which has a modern democratic government, and has employed proportional representation and ranked choice voting in their federal elections for 100+ years. Because this process incentivizes coalition governments and more moderate political parties, Australia’s civic system provides less of an opportunity, structurally, for the type of political polarization seen in the United States.

Considering most people in America receive their news, whatever political bias it contains, from online and digital media, the panelists believed there must be effort put into changing the system of rewards. Currently, many try keep our attention and encourage us to share content via emotionally arousing material to generate advertising and other revenue, but that approach also ultimately polarizes us. A deliberate approach to changing incentives so more will promote messaging that aims to provide accurate information and not stoke harmful, unnecessary divides was recommended by the panelists.

Coan mentioned the idea of “Peacetech”, one aspect of which is changing online media algorithms that promote divisive or purposefully harmful political messaging. We need not “delete” much existing content or infringe upon constitutional First Amendment rights, but rather, according to Coan, amplify content that unifies people and is factually accurate (or at least not amplify content that does the opposite). Current media practices recognize humans’ negativity bias and attraction to emotional content, resulting in a world where “hate sells”, but we can change that. At the very least, there should be algorithm transparency so people know the kind of content they are consuming, and researchers can better understand just how much algorithms promote divisive content.

Graeve, on the other hand, is a major proponent of utilizing the internet and large conferences as a vehicle to connect the masses with healthy civic engagement techniques. She believes, in the right setting, healthy and civil political discussions can be modeled for millions of viewers. For example, Common Sense American brings together thousands of people each year to discuss important policy issues being debated before the U.S. Congress—in a respectful, thoughtful way. Similarly, Graeve suggests that virtual forums, widely broadcasted and shared by “influencers” with their followers, can provide a good educational tool for leaders to model political dialogue in a non-polarized way.

Depolarization can start with us as individuals but the solutions that bring the most positive change and biggest hopes for a better, healthier national discourse are ones that scale “Mount Polarization”. Tune in to this public forum to learn more from these policy experts and practitioners of democracy!